The Sound of One Hand Clapping

It tires me to hear the constant complaint of Americans that ‘they’ (whoever’s life we’re changing at the moment) just don’t get it and are not sufficiently desirous of democracy.

It tires me to hear the constant complaint of Americans that ‘they’ (whoever’s life we’re changing at the moment) just don’t get it and are not sufficiently desirous of democracy. They are almost always Yugoslavs newly turned loose against one another, Eastern Europeans struggling to understand an unfamiliar democracy, Russians contending to recognize what has happened to their culture, Chinese not up to our standard on the human-rights scale.
Why can’t they recognize their own best interests?
Probably because they suffer the same sense of dislocation we
Americans try to deal with in uncertain times. International rules are
new and we’re playing on an old board–there are precious few truly
modern politicians today, East or West. As bilateral leftovers in what
has become (at least militarily) a unilateral world order, we are held
hostage to our history. A scant seventeen years have gone by since the
wheels came off communism and we (and they) continue to struggle within
a cold-war apparatus that no longer exists.
But the ghosts are there. Applause has become the sound of one hand clapping. A world brought up to understand the power behind balances of power has gone white as a sheet in fear of America.
Bill Clinton was many things, but he was a president who understood
that America needed to walk quietly within the enormous silence that
followed 1989. There was talk of a ‘peace dividend,’ the wind went
temporarily out of America’s massive arms buildup and the country began
to pay down fifty years of debt. Nations raised their heads from the
fear of eye-contact to look at solvable problems rather than playing
one another off against Russia or the United States.
Hope took a gulp of fresh air. We were winding down after half a
century over-wound. You could almost hear the international sigh of
relief, whatever relief individually meant. 
Then came 9-11, an event too fictive for Hollywood, too horrific to get
the human mind around. 9-11 was a disaster by any plausible definition
of the term, but what could have been (and tried to be) a moment of
worldwide empathy and cooperation, quickly became a critical mass of
Not the terror of terrorists, but the terror of watching and
reacting to the world’s last remaining superpower gone off the rails.
America instantly made of itself a swaggering measure for which there
was no counter-measure. That was largely due to the peculiar personnel
mix within the administration upon whose watch 9-11 occurred.
Essentially, it was a reconvened Nixon administration.
Interestingly, when we vote every four years for a president, we are
seldom provided the barest hint of the players who will hold down key
cabinet positions and administrative roles. I have often thought it
would be revelatory for candidates to announce their cabinet choices
prior to election.
It turns out to have mattered a great deal that George Bush’s Secretary
of Defense (Donald Rumsfeld) had once served in a number of sub-cabinet
positions in the Nixon White House and as Chief of Staff, then
Secretary of Defense under President Ford. Every step through his
career, Dick Cheney was a creature of Donald Rumsfeld.
Thus, thirty years later, these Nixon political hawks found
themselves at the controls, guiding a lightweight and disinterested
president through the aftermath of 9-11. All that had been lost of presidential power, due to the Nixon resignation, would now, could now, be regained. 9-11 was the agent of deliverance and immediately the world heard that

  • they ‘were either for us or against us’
  • the United States intended to dominate space
  • no one would be allowed in satellite orbit but by our permission
  • we were deploying an anti-ballistic shield

A case for retaliation against al-Qaida beyond Afghanistan, a phony case against Iraq began. Iran was named as a member of the axis of evil.
Small wonder China got nervous. Understandable that Vladimir Putin took
offense to the staging of weapons on the borders of his country. Not
difficult to recognize that Tony Blair and Britain felt dragged into
conflict. With us or against us re-polarized a world that had just begun to settle after fifty years of brinksmanship.
Those brinks were not American, they were Czech and Slovak brinks,
East German, Polish, Russia, Korean, Taiwanese, mainland Chinese and
Cuban abysses.
Much of the world stepped up to the edge during the
past sixty years and tried to look down without losing their balance.
They thought, they hoped, those days were behind them.
What was wanted and needed after 9-11 was decisive action, quiet
rhetoric, balance and determination. What would have best served the
reality of American might, was a calm and muted behind-the-scenes
policing that all nations, particularly Islamic nations were ready to
What they got instead was the American cowboy, riding tall and
galloping in to town with guns blazing, shooting, taking everyone
prisoner and asking questions later, if at all.
In a mere eyewink, the half-dozen years since the World Trade Center
attack, a world that traditionally looked to America as a bastion of
freedom and hope has become afraid of us. Fear breeds all kinds of responses, none of them useful in the long-term, all of them enemies of dialog.
America itself, is increasingly split between those who say “damned right and afraid is exactly what the hell we want” and
their neighbors who sense a loss more poignant than a single terrorist
attack—a possibly irretrievable loss of America’s reputation as the
world’s best hope for the rights of others.
We stand for something, we Americans. We are better than we have
recently shown ourselves to be. We dare not become Martin Luther King,
Jr’s ‘nation of guided missiles and misguided men.’ As columnist Thomas Friedman wrote, ‘We
have to find a way of defending ourselves from others’ weapons of mass
destruction without losing our own weapon of mass attraction.’

The commanders of our destiny in America today are all children
(some of them in their eighties) of the cold-war. They react
intuitively to yesterday’s passions, the last century’s power
struggles. If national contention continues to symbolize the 21st
century as they did the 20th, it will be because the last consummate
military power left standing was too adolescent in its application of
its own power.
Islam is not our enemy. Powerlessness and lack of equity among Islamists is the mutual enemy
and if our leadership is too hidebound and misunderstanding of history
to recognize that, then we must pray for new leadership. Old rules rule
in this administration’s foreign (and domestic) policy. Indeed, they
rule all aspects of our national government and are common to
Republican and Democrat alike.
Old rules won’t get us where we need to go.

I am reminded of this when Barack Obama draws critics who claim he is
too young and too untested to run for the office of president. He may
or may not be the best candidate and he may or may not win, if selected.
But surely youth is the only remedy for the disastrous sound of one hand clapping.
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